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Kindest cut: Englewood barber reopens day after killing in shop

Sunni Ali Powell (in apron) prays with coworkers and visitors to his shop a day
after one man was killed and another wounded inside his Englewood barber shop. | Andy Grimm / Sun-Times

Business was slow Friday at Powell’s Barbershop.

When owner Sunni Powell arrived at the shop in the morning, he was only 12 hours removed from watching hazmat crews clean blood off his floors and homicide detectives check the cushions of his waiting-area couches for spent bullets.

Around 4 p.m. Thursday, a gunman burst into his shop and opened fire on two of Powell’s customers, killing one and shooting the other in the leg.

In the six years since he opened his shop in the tiny strip mall on South May at West 63rd Street, Powell has seen neighboring businesses turn over time and again. Powell closes up his shop on Tuesdays and holidays.

Powell’s has become an anchor tenant for the neighborhood in more ways than one.

Chances are, if you climb into one of the nine chairs at Powell’s, the man pressing the clippers to your scalp grew up no more than five or six blocks away, just like Powell himself.

Powell’s hosts an occasional “peace party” for kids, with bouncy castles in the parking lot; the barber teams up with the public library to hold story times, and he gives free haircuts to kids for the first day of school.

Powell expected that his Englewood clientele would be contemplating fresh cuts as they prepared for Memorial Day barbecues. So taking a day off — even after a murder inside his business — wasn’t an option, Powell said.

“We got lots of people expecting us to be open,” Powell said. “Where else are they gonna go?”

So just before 8 a.m., on went the vanity lights over the mirrors. On went the TVs, tuned to local news and ESPN. A barber who was friends with one of the victims took a day. And while a steady stream of well-wishers buzzed in at the door, there was no waiting at Powell’s at midday.

Folks weren’t exactly streaming in, at least not for haircuts. A neighborhood gardening group sent members over to Powell’s with coffee and doughnuts, and a steady stream of well-wishers came in to ask after Powell and his staff.

Powell’s first customer of the day was a young boy getting freshened up for his kindergarten prom. A minister whom Powell had never met called, to encourage him to stay open. A group of volunteers and staff for a youth sports program came in and joined hands for a prayer circle with Powell, the two barbers who made it in to work and their customers.

Some of the boisterous joy of barbershop banter had returned by the afternoon, with Powell chuckling along as one of his barbers recounted the news that a former employee had been busted for selling weed to an undercover cop.

“We’ve got to keep doing what we do,” Powell said, sitting in his chair, fielding an endless stream of text messages. “We like to think we’re special in here. But we got touched by what goes on outside. So we have to go on, keep trying to make things better.”